Pretend you're a member of Congress from Maryland, and thus keenly interested in more federal help in reversing the rapid decline of the Chesapeake Bay, a critical economic resource.
Along comes a proposal promising by far the largest investment ever of federal money into the bay: $400 million over five years, including $150 million specifically designated to help farmers reduce fertilizer pollution. But the money is attached to a national farm bill that would continue many wasteful and destructive policies for another five years.
Chances are, you'd hold your nose when the legislation lands on the House floor tomorrow and vote for it - hoping the bad stuff comes out later in the process, but knowing the good stuff for the bay will almost certainly disappear if you cross the farm lobby.
That's an awful trade-off. But bay advocates would have a hard time criticizing the decision, especially because opportunities for reform of agricultural policy open anew in the Senate. What's alarming is the power an antiquated crop subsidy program continues to hold over Congress, even over such leaders as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose San Francisco-area district is home base for activists backing an alternative approach.
The farm bill makes gestures to the reformers. Crop subsidy and conservation payments are limited to individuals with adjusted gross incomes below $1 million a year; fruit and vegetable crops would be eligible for benefits along with corn, grain and cotton; and funding for nutrition programs would grow.
But each of these gestures, much like the new bay money, seems intended primarily to quell resistance to a program that would continue to underwrite factory farms that are making record profits at the expense of family operations and the environment.
Maryland, with its small farms and tiny share of subsidies, would likely fare better if the reformers' alternative were favored by the House. But not if it failed - and with Marylanders on the wrong side of the vote.
With the status quo so well protected by folks with clout at the ballot box, even long-overdue reform is an absurdly uphill climb.